Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Maze Runner's Implicit Message About Girls' Role in Education

The scene is a complex learning environment, populated entirely by young men and controlled by unseen overseers.  The boys socialize, assign roles, and work to transcend their environment and enter the outside world.  Eventually (spoilers) the system is revealed as a tool for weeding out a final candidate, capable of responding to the post-apocalyptic ruin of the outer world.  This describes the upcoming cinematic adaptation of book trilogy ‘The Maze Runner’.  But it also describes the growing number of schools that are implementing gender segregated classrooms.  Essentially, ‘The Maze Runner’ is a story about an experimental education program.  And in its unspoken assumptions about gender, it reflects the ongoing debate on how to best educate young people.  

Michael Gurian is one of the leading voices in recognizing what he sees as fundamental differences in the way that boys and girls learn.  Beyond books like ‘The Minds of Boy’s, The Gurian Institute seeks to enrich educators in “Learning through a gender lens.”  Gurian is a strong supporter of the alleged benefits of single sex education, recently rallying against a Psychological Bulletin study arguing otherwise.   And he isn’t alone.  From Hong Kong to Utah, the idea of single-sex classrooms is being turned to more and more.  Supporters see the option as a necessary tool in combating  wide-ranging gender disparities.  
Time magazine calls it “Tech Gender Gap”, in which young women feel stigmatized against involvement in computer science, mathematics and technology courses.  In January, The Daily Mail called it a “crisis of confidence,” The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development finding that, among 15 year olds in the UK, girls were far less likely to see themselves as proficient in math.  The same month, US News and World Reports investigated data for AP test courses.  Boys were found far more likely to participate in computer science, physics and calculus exams.  And while girls took more college level tests than boys overall, and were more likely to test in English, Literature, Biology and Art, their selective underrepresentation reflects the ECOD’s crisis of confidence.  Conversely, in books like, “Boys Adrift”, authors like Leonard Sax see gender segregated classrooms as a way to address what they see as a lack of educational motivation among young men.  Drawing heavily on Sax’s work, nonprofits like The National Association for Single Sex Public Education argue the multiple advantages, both academic and social, of single sex classrooms.  They warn of “gender intensification”, the tendency of gender roles to become magnified in coed settings, urging the avoidance of a “girls learn this way and boys learn this way” mentality” in favor of a more all inclusive learning philosophy.  
The lure of headlines can often lead to contradictory alarms.  CBS News can ask “Where Have all the Working Men Gone?”, even as the gender wage gap continues to persist.  Pop culture follows suit, giving us ‘The Maze Runner’s reluctant male messiah just a few months before the penultimate film appearance of female freedom fighter Katniss Everdeen.  But while the ‘Hunger Games’ numerous warrior women provide refreshing reversals of gender roles, The Maze Runner’s world savior candidate pool is exclusively male.  When the lone female character is introduced into the maze, it marks the beginning of chaos and upheaval, the character serving as an enabling device for the success of the male hero.  ‘The Maze Runner’ gives us a fully realized vision of a society in crisis, in which young men are tested for their ability to heal the world itself.  But in two additional books (and possibly films, depending on this initial installment’s success) no mention is made of a colony of girls working to navigate their own maze.  If young women exist in this universe, said existence is not worth mentioning.  But outside of an isolated male-centric narrative, ‘The Maze Runner’ is a sad reminder of the still disproportionate academic success rate of young men in certain high value fields, and the gender duality that still informs much of early childhood education.
In the call for gender divided classrooms, Caryl Rivers sees as an incipient agenda to further undermine the status of women.  In ‘The Truth About Boys and Girls: Challenging the Toxic Stereotypes about our Children’ she seeks to highlight how single sex education often speaks of a “biological determinism”.  Talking to BU Today in 2011, Rivers warned of collective backlash against the idea of the “end of men,” the same “men’s right’s rhetoric that inspires men to feel persecuted by women, even as female academic success fails to translate into professional success on an institutional scale.   Rivers argues, “I think there is an agenda here, based on the belief that girls are taking over everything and men are failing, which is not true. We always tend to worry about men in this culture anyhow. Now we’re worrying about men because women are doing so well.”  She sees the issue in education and motivation lying not with the influence of peers upon one another, but in the influence of educators and parents, reinforcing gender roles that disproportionately benefit men and harm women.   
In 2008, Slate’s Amanda Schaffer called these groups “sex difference evangelists”, blaming a confirmation bias on researchers’ tendency to emphasize the supposed differences between male and female brains.  “Some differences between the minds of men and women exist, “Schaffer says, “But in most areas, they are small and dwarfed by the variability within each gender.”  Her assertion is corroborated by more recent studies, like 2009’s “Pink Brain Blue Brain,” in which neuroscientist Lise Eliot stressed the way in which miniscule differences in brain chemistry are accelerated through social conditioning to become supposedly concrete gender differences.  And Eliot’s work must feel threatening enough to the supposed evangelists of sex difference.  The bulk of the NAASPE’s FAQ is dedicated to discrediting Eliot’s findings as “non scholarly” solutions that reinforce the very differences she seeks to ameliorate.  The ACLU, meanwhile, sees gender segregation in classrooms as an insidious ploy, coded language that reinforces sexual stereotypes.  In May of 2014, the ACLU sounded alarm bells at the prospect of Florida’s passing of a statewide teacher development training based on alleged learning differences between boys and girls.  The ensuing complaint, filed against the Hillsborough County School District, alleged gender discrimination, and led to a currently ongoing federal investigation.  
There seems to be no end in sight to parade of big budget adaptations of dystopian young adult novels (‘The Maze Runner’ follows ‘The Giver’ by just over a month, and predates November’s upcoming Hunger Games sequel).   And so it goes for the debate over how to best address the issues facing young learners.  Caryl Rivers and Lise Eliot would emphasize the need to address the gendered socialization that influences how young men and women see themselves.  And so far as The Maze Runner goes, how big of a role do the stories we tell those young people play in this process?  What does it tell girls when a film portrays the salvation of the world as occurring solely in the hands of its young men?       

The Maze Runner opens September 19th


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